The people making a difference: the climate activist fighting fossil fuel giants

<span>Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian

Nick Hodgkinson has a dark sense of humour, which comes in useful during his climate change activism.

Take the time the 59-year-old was protesting with Extinction Rebellion outside the Houses of Parliament. Hodgkinson, a retired charity worker, has motor neurone disease (MND). He uses a heavy, motorised wheelchair and has a tracheostomy tube in his neck that connects to a ventilator, meaning he communicates mainly through typing on his phone.

“The police moved forward,” Hodgkinson recalls, “arresting people and carrying them away.” They then asked him to move, and when he refused, they arrested him too. Hodgkinson asked if they had a wheelchair-accessible van. An embarrassed officer went out to check. The answer came back: no.

Instead of being sent to the police station, Hodgkinson and the officer stayed in the road for a few hours until his shift changed and Hodgkinson’s battery was running low. “I told him I’d best be off now,” says Hodgkinson.

“He said, ‘Hang on, I have to de-arrest you first.’” Turns out, Hodgkinson jokes, that “a heavy wheelchair is handy for wrongfooting the police”.

Nick’s a brilliant campaigner: very intelligent and organised. I am in total awe of him and find him an inspiration

Campaigner Chayley Collis

Hodgkinson became involved in climate change activism after his health worsened to the point he had to give up his job at Citizens Advice. “I thought, ‘I’ve now got time to find out more [about the climate emergency]’, so I did a couple of online courses.”

What he learned was chilling. “This could really be the end of life as we know it,” he says. “And the people who will be hurt first, and worst, are the ones who have done the least to cause climate breakdown: either because they’re in countries that have been colonised and exploited by rich countries, or because they’re young, or not even born yet.” The injustice motivates him to make a change in the world for as long as his health permits – MND severely limits a person’s life expectancy.

He is active in the Fossil Fuel Free West Yorkshire campaign, which is fighting to get the West Yorkshire Pension Fund to divest from fossil fuels. Hodkingson is a member of the fund himself.

“Outrageously,” he says, “the fund has millions invested in Shell and BP. The fund’s bosses say they have a duty to look after pension savings, but pensions are all about security in old age. And investing in fossil fuels is destroying everyone’s security.” (The fund has previously said it was committed to a net zero portfolio for its investments, and had reduced its holdings in oil and gas.)

Five West Yorkshire councils – Calderdale, Leeds, Bradford, Kirklees and Wakefield – have passed motions calling on the fund to divest from fossil fuels.

Life – especially my life – is too short to waste with people who think the likes of Donald Trump are protecting freedom

“There are some great councillors who really get it,” says Hodgkinson, “and make the arguments.” But the lack of action from the pension fund itself is frustrating. “They say continuing to invest in BP and Shell is a good thing,” he says, “as they can influence those companies’ decisions and get them to change their fossil fuel-dependent ways.” He is sceptical.

“Nick is very poorly, but has dedicated himself to using the time he has left to act on the climate emergency,” says Chayley Collis, a Huddersfield-based climate campaigner. “He’s a brilliant campaigner: very intelligent and organised. I am in total awe of him and find him an inspiration.”

Related: The people making a difference: the powerchair football coach leading his team to victory

Through his activism, Hodgkinson has found a sense of belonging and community. “I’m a sociable person,” he says, “and life – especially my life – is too short to waste in the company of people who think the likes of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump are protecting freedom. I’ve always believed that when motivated people get together for a shared cause, with shared values, they can move mountains.”

He is determined not to let MND limit his activism. “We’re all used to having meetings on Zoom and I have a magic gizmo that I can fit to my tracheostomy tube, which lets me speak.”

When asked about his treat, Hodgkinson thinks of his football team, Aston Villa. “It’s in my blood,” he says of the club. He grew up in Birmingham and started watching Villa when he was seven. “There’s nothing like the match-day routine of meeting for a pint, talking about the team selection and getting into the ground for all that singing.”

The club give Hodgkinson tickets for their match against Everton, their first home game of the Premier League season. To make things even better, Villa win 2-1. “There were some squeaky bum moments in the last few minutes, but we won,” says an elated Hodgkinson when we catch up after the match. “The next win will be for the Fossil Free West Yorkshire campaign. Up the Villa and down with fossil fuels!”